All posts by Paul Tchir

Bob Fowler

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to feature a topic that gives a nod to both Canada Day and Independence Day, and we think that we have found just the case. Today’s is a lighthearted mystery concerning Bob Fowler, a long-distance runner who competed at both the 1904 St. Louis Olympics and the 1906 Intercalated Games. We have complete biographical details on Fowler, yet seemingly the simplest detail is the one that is most mysterious: the nation that he represented.

(Fowler, center, in 1904)

Bob Fowler was born September 18, 1882 in Trinity, Newfoundland, but moved to Boston in 1898. Taking up distance racing in 1901, he competed in the marathon at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, but did not complete the race. He also failed to complete the marathon at the 1906 Intercalated Games, and was entered into the 5 mile event at that tournament, but did not start. He had better luck in other competitions: he was runner-up in the 1907 Boston Marathon, third in the 1905 and 1908 editions, and fourth in 1911. He also set a short-lived record when he won the 1909 Empire City Marathon. Following the end of his active career, he coached for many years and eventually settled back in Massachusetts to work as an electrician. He died October 8, 1957.

Fowler did not become an American citizen until 1907, which means that although he was living in the United States during both of his Olympic appearances, he was technically not an American competitor. Complicating this discussion, however, is the fact that until 1908, Olympians were permitted to represent the nation of their club, regardless of any citizenship questions. As national delegations were often not formalized or “official” before this, some athletes could be debated as to which country they represented, particularly as they were likely not concerned with this manner of identification themselves.

Fowler is one of these cases. In 1906, he was listed as a member of the official delegation from the United States to Athens (the first time the country had organized its team formally), and thus it seems to reasonable to list him as representing the United States. His identification for 1904, however, is debatable. He was living in the United States and competing for an American club, which means that there is an argument for his being American at this tournament too.

(Dominion of Newfoundland Blue Ensign, 1870–1904)

In terms of his homeland, however, he had been born in Newfoundland, which since 1854 had been a self-governing colony and had explicitly rejected confederation with neighboring Dominion of Canada. Newfoundland would gain its own status as a dominion, or semi-independent political entity under the British Crown, in 1907, and would not join Canada until 1949. In 1904, therefore, the territory was still a British colony.

A case could therefore be made that Fowler represented Great Britain, but this would surely not reflect his self-identity at the time and he had no known direct connection to that country. Would this mean that he can be said to have represented Newfoundland? At the time, it was arguably not independent enough to be considered its own nation, but neither was South Africa when it competed unofficially in 1904 and officially in 1908, as the Union of South Africa did not occur until 1910. Again, as with representation, the rules for which territories of countries could compete under their own flag did not even begin to be addressed until 1908, and even then they were largely arbitrary determinations of who could compete independently.

So, who was Fowler representing at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics? Would he perhaps best be categorized as an independent athlete? In the end, perhaps all that matters is that he took part, and that he was, therefore, an Olympian.

Fred Markus

Our blog post for the day concerns a Canadian Olympian who, having been born in 1937, is a little younger than we might normally feature on Oldest Olympians. He was, however, forwarded to us by Connor Mah, who has been infinitely helpful in solving the cases of numerous Olympians, including many of those we have featured previously on this blog. Moreover, as we hope that you will agree, he certainly qualifies as an Olympic Mystery.

(Fred Markus, pictured in the July 3, 1954 edition of the Vancouver Sun)

Alfred H. Markus, born June 26, 1937, entered the Canadian cycling scene as a teenager in the early 1950s and first represented Canada internationally in 1956, before reaching the age of 20, at the Melbourne Olympics, failing to complete the road race and being eliminated in the round one repêchage.

(Markus, second from left, on his way to the Olympics, as pictured in the November 14, 1956 edition of The Province)

Markus’ next major stop was the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where he was eighth in a field of 26 competitors in the 1 km time trial. He then travelled to the 1959 Pan-American Games, where he was 12th in the kilometre time trial and eliminated in the round one repêchage final. Nonetheless, he seemed to be entering the prime of his career, but it is here where he simply vanishes from the record.

Despite some thorough searches, Mah was unable to find any trace of his activities, sporting or otherwise, following this event, leaving us able only to speculate as to what might have happened. Some of the more likely events include him changing his name or moving to another country, but even these usually leave some trace. In fact, even during his career he seemed to be absent from Toronto City Directories, suggesting perhaps an issue with his surname. The best evidence that could be found was that he might have had some connection to Belgium, but even that is tenuous.

On perhaps a more positive note, Mah was able to solve the case of American gold medal-winning swimmer Eugene R. Rogers, born February 17, 1924, whom we profiled in an earlier blog. He was able to confirm through cemetery records that Rogers did in fact die on December 30, 2017.

Updates on Past Cases

Today on the Oldest Olympians blog, we wanted to provide our readers with updates to several cases that we have discussed in the past, but have now been resolved. This inspiration for this post comes from Gulu Ezekiel, who was able to confirm that Lavy Pinto, who represented India in two track events at the 1952 Helsinki Games, and whom we profiled recently, did in fact die on February 15 at the age of 90.

These new updates come thanks to the diligent work of Connor Mah and Rob Gilmore, who were able to not only confirm the details of some of our past cases, but uncover a plethora of biographical data for many lesser-known Olympians as well (but that is, perhaps, for another blog post). In one case, they even preempted one of our long-term mysteries, that of Canadian boxer Roy Keenan. Keenan, born August 26, 1930, represented Canada in light-welterweight boxing at the 1952 Helsinki Games, where he was eliminated in the first round by Piet van Klaveren of the Netherlands. We had long known about an obituary for a Roy Keenan who died May 21, 2003 that contained insufficient identifying details, and were planning to feature him in a blog post after the 90th anniversary of his birth. Just recently, however, Mah was able to confirm that this was indeed the Olympic boxer.

One case that we have featured in the past that was solved by Mah and Gilmore was that of Jacques Carbonneau, born May 11, 1928, who represented Canada as one of the nation’s two cross-country skiers at the 1952 Oslo Olympics, where he finished 70th in the 18 km event. Through their research, they were able to confirm that an obituary in the March 15, 2007 edition of La Presse, stating that a Jacques Carbonneau, born in 1928, had died two days earlier, was in fact that of the Olympian.

Mah also pointed us in the direction of Carl Horn, son of Olympic fencer Alf Horn, who took part in five events at the 1948 London Games. As it turns out, from a communication with Carl, the Alf Horn who died in August 1978 was not the Olympian – the Olympic Alf Horn died April 5, 1991 in Montreal, which demonstrates that even when the evidence seems convincing, it is often important to get further confirmation.

Finally, a small update to one of our more popular stories, that of Canadian ski jumper Bob Lymburne, is that we were able to confirm from a relative that the story of him walking off into the woods and (presumably) dying was in fact true. While we were unable to ascertain a precise date (or even year), confirmation of the story brings us one step closer to solving that mystery. We hope that you have found these updates useful and interesting, and that you will join us again next week as we look into more Olympic mysteries!

Sigurður Jónsson

Today on Oldest Olympians we are going to address a mystery that was solved recently by one of the OlyMADMen, Martin Kellner. It involves Sigurður Jónsson, who competed in the 200 metres breaststroke swimming event at the 1948 London Olympics. Both of them.

(Sigurður Jónsson of Ystafell, pictured in his 2003 obituary)

The 200 metres breaststroke swimming competition at the 1948 London Games featured two men named Sigurður Jónsson, both representing Iceland and both appearing exclusively in this event. The younger of the two was born July 23, 1924 in Ystafell and was an educator by career. He survived to the semi-finals at the 1948 Olympics and became Nordic champion in the same event the following year. He died on March 13, 2003, at the age of 78.

(Sigurður Jónsson of Reykjavík, pictured in his 2019 obituary)

The older of the two was born December 20, 1922 in Reykjavík and was the first Icelandic man to reach the finals at the European Swimming Championships, which he did in 1947. He went on to represent his country at the 1948 London Olympics, but was eliminated in the first round of the 200 metres breaststroke.

In terms of relevance to Oldest Olympians, this Sigurður Jónsson died April 21, 2019, at the age of 96. This makes him the longest-lived Olympian from Iceland and means that Finnbjörn Þorvaldsson, who we featured several times on our site, was never actually the oldest living Icelandic Olympian. We made this in error in large part due to the confusion between these two individuals, so we hope that our brief post here helps clear matters up!

The First Black Olympian

Given current events, we here at Oldest Olympians felt that we could provide an infinitesimal contribution in emphasizing Black Lives Matter by producing a quick blog on the topic of the first black Olympian. Conveniently enough, it just so happens that this fits the theme of Olympic mysteries. If one were to perform an internet search on this topic, the answer you would likely find is that Constantin Henriquez was the first black Olympian, and that would be correct. Somewhat.

Most sources would list this individual’s full name as Constantin Francisco Henríquez de Zubiría, who won a gold medal in rugby, as well as a silver medal in the tug-of-war, at the 1900 Paris Olympics. While photographs from the rugby tournament show a black athlete, however, those from the tug-of-war competition do not. Realizing this discrepancy led the OlyMADMen to discover that these records were actually discussing two different individuals.

(Francisco Henríquez de Zubiría)

Thanks to assistance from Spanish Olympic historian Fernando Arrechea, it is now believed that the tug-of-war competitor was Francis Henriquez de Zubiría, born December 10, 1869 in Paris and died September 2, 1933. Until a 1917 naturalization, however, Zubiría was a Colombian, which makes him the first representative from that country at the Olympics. You can read a little more about him at his now-public OlyMADMen profile.

(Constantin Henriquez)

So who was the first black Olympian then? That distinction goes to Constantin Henriquez, who won a gold medal in 1900 Olympic rugby tournament, thus also making him the first black Olympic champion. As a competitor, however, he is credited as being a representative of Haiti, thus making the 1900 Olympic rugby squad a “mixed” team rather than just a “French” one. Henriquez was also a track and field athlete, introduced football to Haiti in 1904, and founded the Union Sportive Haïtienne with his brother Alphonse (who would later take part in the music competitions at the 1932 Los Angeles Games). Constantin later studied medicine and was a doctor by profession. We are not yet certain, but we believe, according to Haiti’s civil registration, that he was born c. 1880 and died February 1, 1942 in Port-au-Prince.

Two Recent Deaths

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to take a quick look at the claimed recent deaths of two nonagenarian Olympians for whom we cannot locate obituaries. As usual, we do not have a particular reason to disbelieve the reports, but we also cannot confirm that they are true, so we are sharing this information with the community in the hopes that we may be able to learn more.

(Lavy Pinto, pictured in an article from livemint.com)

Lavy Pinto – Member of India’s track and field athletics delegation to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics

Lavy Pinto, born October 23, 1929, represented India in track at the 1952 Helsinki Games, reaching the semifinals of both the 100 and 200 metres events. This was no fluke for Pinto, as he had been the champion in those competitions at the 1951 Asian Games, where he had also taken silver in the 4×100 metres relay. He had one more successful year in his sport and then retired in 1954. He eventually moved to Chicago in 1969, where he was still living half a century later. Someone claiming to be a family member stated that he died February 15 of this year in that city, but they did not reply to our request for more information and, as we could not locate an obituary either, we cannot confirm that he is deceased.

Louis Baise – Member of South Africa’s wrestling delegation to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics

At the same Games attended by Pinto, Louis Baise, born May 4, 1927, represented South Africa in the flyweight, freestyle wrestling tournament, where he survived until round four and placed sixth overall. At every other major international tournament he attended, however, he won gold: the 1950 and 1953 Maccabiah Games and the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Following the latter competition, we had no additional information on his life and, unlike Pinto, we were not aware of his having been alive past his 90th birthday. An anonymous user on Wikipedia, however, claimed that Baise died last month, on May 11, but we have been unable to verify that this is true.

That is all for today, just a short entry to further our goal of research transparency. We aim to have another blog entry next week, so we hope that you will join us! We are also interested in hearing if there are any Oldest Olympians-related topics that you would like covered; if so, let us know in the comments. We are always willing to consider ideas for new blog posts!

Ahmed Labidi

Today on Oldest Olympians we are looking into the possibility that two Olympic athletes by the name of Ahmed Labidi are in fact just one individual. While we have a fairly strong feeling that they are one and the same, we wanted to open this issue up to everyone in the hopes that we can uncover some conclusive proof.

The first individual under consideration is known by the full name of Mohamed Ali Ahmed Ben Labidi and was supposedly born April 19, 1923. Representing CA Montreuil, he competed for France in the 10,000 metres event at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and placed 25th among 33 starters. This individual continued representing France through 1955, after which there is no definite information on him. This coincides roughly with Tunisian independence in 1956, after which it is possible that he resided in Tunisia.

The second individual is known by the full name of Ahmed Ben Dali Labidi and was allegedly born May 4, 1922 in Gammouda, Tunisia. A member of Zitouna Sports, he represented Tunisia in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, finishing 49th among 69 starters. Beyond his Olympic participation, we know nothing further of this individual.

Two sources tie these individuals together as one. The first is the French Wikipedia, which also claims that he died on July 17, 2008. The other is a Tunisian Facebook page, although the only source that it lists for this claim is Wikipedia itself. On the surface, there is nothing glaring to signal an immediate rejection of this claim: they have roughly the same name, are roughly the same age, and competed in roughly the same discipline.

We are contacting the individuals associated with these posts in both Arabic and French in the hopes of learning more and finding some manner of confirmation. In the meantime, we wanted to post about it on this blog not only in the hopes that someone who sees it has some information that might help solve the mystery, but also to present a case that we feel might be of some interest to our readers. As always, we hope that the process of our research, as well as highlighting areas of potential confusion, are worth hearing about.

Finnish Olympians Declared Dead in Absentia

Today on Oldest Olympians we are looking at a quartet of mysteries sent to us by Harri Piironen. All of them concern Finnish Olympians who are believed to have immigrated to North America and subsequently disappeared from the public record.

Jussi Kivimäki – Member of Finland’s wrestling delegation to the 1908 London Olympics

Jussi Kivimäki, born February 5, 1885, represented Finland in the light-heavyweight, Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the 1908 London Games. There, he received a bye in round one, but then lost by decision to Jacob van Westrop of the Netherlands in round two and was thus eliminated from the tournament. The Helsinki champion of 1907 and 1908, he next competed at the unofficial 1909 European Championships, where he was sixth, and then immigrated to North America.

(Did Kivimäki become Ole Samson?)

Here sources differ: most everyone agrees that he was a professional wrestler in Canada for a time after 1910. Some believe that he changed his name to John Kivimäki or John Thompson. At least one researcher believes that he might have been Ole Samson. Some believe that he was a member of the Finnish Workers’ Sports Federation during the 1920s and 1930s; others think that this is a misidentification. Regardless, no one has been able to locate a date of death and thus he was declared dead in absentia with a retroactive date of January 1, 1976.

Emil Holm – Member of Finland’s sport shooting delegation to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics

Emil Holm, born September 2, 1877, represented Finland in the three positions, 300 metres shooting tournament at the 1912 Stockholm Games, where he was 49th individually and 5th with the team. The following year, his building firm went bankrupt and he fled to the United States, possibly settling in Galveston, Texas. Former fencing Olympian, and now researcher, George Masin discovered Holm in the draft registry for World War I dated September 12, 1918, living in Houston and with a next-of-kin as his Siri Regina Holm of Helsingford. Emil was declared dead in absentia with a date of January 1, 1968.

Kalle Leivonen – Member of Finland’s wrestling delegation to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics

Kalle Leivonen, born September 17, 1886, represented Finland in the featherweight, Greco-Roman wrestling tournament at the 1912 Stockholm Games. There he survived until round seven, only to be defeated by upcoming silver medalist Georg Gerstacker of Germany. Two years later, Leivonen immigrated to the United States.

(Account of Leivonen’s accident, from the May 26, 1927 edition of the Fitchburg Sentinel)

We located records of Leivonen’s arrival in Massachusetts in 1914, where he ran a business and lived until at least 1927. That year, he was rescued after nearly drowning in an automobile accident. Evidence suggests that he was living in Manhattan by 1930, but after that our trail went cold. Without further information, he was declared dead in absentia as of January 1, 1978.

Hannes Kärkkäinen – Member of Finland’s diving delegation at the 1924 Paris Olympics

Hannes Kärkkäinen, born July 17, 1902, is perhaps the most mysterious of all. He represented Finland in platform diving at the 1924 Paris Games, where he placed ninth. He is known to have left Finland in 1926, but after that his movements are not certain. One theory is that he emigrated to the United States and eventually died in North Sterling, Connecticut. The other is that he was the Juho Juhonpoika Kärkkäinen who was killed in the Soviet Union’s Great Purge in 1938. As neither theory has been proven, he is listed with a death in absentia date of January 1, 1993.

Zakaria Chihab

Today on Oldest Olympians we are presenting a relatively straightforward mystery regarding a single Olympian: Lebanese wrestler Zakaria Chihab. Chihab was born March 5, 1926, but there is no question as to whether he is alive or if he became one of the oldest Olympians. Our hope, as with the last blog about Maurice Lefèbvre, is simply to find out when he died despite the conflicting information.

(Chihab, pictured at Abdo Gedeon)

As a prominent international wrestler of the 1950s, most of the details of Chihab’s life are not in question. Always competing as a bantamweight, he took silver in the Greco-Roman division and bronze in freestyle at the 1951 and 1955 Mediterranean Games respectively. Undoubtedly his greatest achievement, however, was in becoming Lebanon’s first Olympic medalist by winning silver in the Greco-Roman competition at the 1952 Helsinki Games (his wrestling compatriot Khalil Taha earned bronze as a welterweight later that day). He also attended the 1953 World Championships, placing sixth, and ran a fitness club after his retirement. At some point in the 1970s, he moved to Kuwait to work as a coach with the army.

He lived out the rest of his days in Kuwait, so it is known that he died there, but sources differ on when exactly that was. The Arabic-language Wikipedia lists 1996 but, predictably, without a source. With that said, we were able to locate an old article (since removed but archived) from July 8, 1996 that mentioned he died “years ago”.

Thus Wikipedia’s date of 1996 was incorrect, but an understandable error. With that, for many years we simply had a best guess of “sometime in the 1990s” for his date of death. Then, in December of last year, an anonymous user from Kuwait added a more precise date of December 1983 to his English Wikipedia article. Of course, if a source had been included, we would not be writing this entry. Thus, while we have no reason to doubt this date, we have been unable to verify it either. Perhaps, much as with our review of Egypt’s earliest Olympic medalists when we first began this blog, our mystery is only half mystery, and half a sad tale of a forgotten prominent sportsman.

Maurice Lefèbvre

Today on Oldest Olympians we are looking at a mystery where we believe that we know all of the potential avenues for its resolution, but can only take a reasonable guess on which one is correct. It concerns Maurice Lefèbvre, a water polo player for the French national team who represented his country at two editions of the summer Olympics. This is about all that we can say about him with confidence.

According to the Olympic reports, a Maurice Lefèbvre represented France in the water polo tournaments at the 1936 Berlin and 1948 London Olympics, where the nation placed fourth and sixth respectively. The only other fact that we know about his life was that he was a member of Enfants de Neptune de Tourcoing and that all sources gives his year of birth as 1913.

Beyond this is where the questions arise: some sources have his date of birth as December 30, other have October 1. Some spell his surname Lefèbvre, others spell it Lefèvre. The French Swimming Federation added to the confusion by listing a Maurice Lefè(b)vre under both names, but only a year of birth. Under the Lefèbvre spelling, they listed a date of death of January 1, 2014, which would have made him 100 years old. Under the Lefèvre spelling, he was listed with a date of death of October 1, 2013, which would have made him 99.

Our best guess, therefore, was that information had been muddled somewhere and that “January 1, 2014” was a placeholder year signaling “deceased, date unknown” and that October 1, 2013 was the correct date. Recently, however, the French Swimming Federation merged the two entries together, and now the Olympian is listed under the spelling Lefèbvre with the January 1, 2014 date.

With the recent release of the French Death Index, we set out to solve this issue once and for all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we did not find any Maurice Lefè(b)vre who died in 2013 or 2014 that would match the Olympian. There was, however, Maurice Alfred Lefèbvre born on October 30, 1913 in Tourcoing who died May 24, 1983 in Tourcoing.

This would seem to solve the mystery, as it combines all the data points we had into one likely suspect. Unfortunately, without a full obituary, we are unable to confirm that this is the Olympian. Nonetheless, since we see so much different information online regarding Lefèbvre, and particularly since most of that data points towards him being among the Oldest Olympians, we thought that we would gather it in one place so that readers could get a better sense of where it all comes from.